CHICAGO — In 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker promised legalizing weed would create “new millionaires in the Black community, in the Latino community, all across this state.”
Anybody who believed him must have been smoking the good stuff.
Because, two years later, not a single Black or Latino business person owns the majority share of a licensed marijuana dispensary or cannabis-growing operation in Illinois.
It’s just another example of “fakequity” issue in Pritzker’s administration.
Fakequity — some call it fake equity — is when politicians such as Pritzker don’t keep promises to address obvious social disadvantages minority communities face due to generations of institutional racism.
Projects and plans get touted as equity efforts without actually shifting the power dynamics that keep racial minorities at a competitive disadvantage and without being held accountable to the communities they’re claiming to help.
During his first term, Pritzker has exposed himself as a prolific purveyor of fakequity — especially during the pandemic, when he repeatedly failed to deliver on promises of coronavirus testing and vaccinations in Black and Latino communities suffering the worst COVID-19 consequences.
The all-white-owned legal weed industry in Illinois shows that Pritzker’s fakequity tendencies transcend his pandemic policies.
The governor promised Black and Latino people legal weed “equity” that would create minority marijuana moguls. What actually happened was rich white men who could afford to buy into the cash-only weed industry cornered the market on selling dope sacks that an inequitable number of Black people went to jail for selling on street corners.
That detail is not disputed.
Pritzker initially shrugged at the criticism when former state Sen. Rickey Hendon helped organized protests calling for changes to the state licensing process.
Then, minority firms blocked from getting licenses sued the Pritzker administration.
State Rep. La Shawn Ford called Pritzker an “epic failure” for refusing to fix the legal-weed licensing system that discriminates against minority-owned firms.
Somebody even created an interactive website that aims to make the case that the state’s legal weed licensing system is packed with white, clout-heavy political insiders at the helm of a corrupt licensing system — and evidence that Pritzker is a “pecuniary racist.” Go ahead, click on the link to check out curated news stories and and a connect-the-dots look at the clout and cronyism that some say stands in the way of Black and Latino firms from cashing in on the legal weed business.
Still, in January, the governor had the audacity to proclaim in a news release that he’s “proud” to delivered on a key “equity goal” by dolling out a faction of taxed-weed revenue as grants to a spattering of nonprofit organizations in poor minority communities.
While white weed-company owners got rich, organizations in poor minority communities hand-picked by the white, billionaire governor’s administration got handed tax-revenue scraps — $31.5 million of the $205 million in taxes the state collected on weed sales last year.
It’s fakequity at its finest.
It’s only now, as public opinion polls show Pritzker is the least popular governor among America’s most populous states in the lead-up to his re-election campaign, that the governor has started to play nice with Ford and Hendon, the two loudest voices in the fight to bring real equity to Illinois’ legal marijuana industry.
Ford, whose district includes economically struggling communities on Chicago’s West Side, introduced an emergency bill in Springfield that would to immediately give minority-owned companies access to licenses that would allow them to grow and sell cannabis in Illinois.
The bill calls for revamping the state system for dolling out licenses that resulted in a white-owned-only weed industry in Illinois, and it would create permits for 115 new cannabis dispensaries statewide.
“If this passes, Black people will absolutely be given access to licenses. This bill makes it almost impossible for minorities — the people hardest hit by getting left behind — to not get a license,” Ford said.
Hendon told me he gave his word to Pritzker that he’d hold off on protests and picketing over legal weed fakequity so long as the governor’s administration continues to make progress on assuring that Black- and Latino-owned businesses get access to state licenses that have so far eluded them.
After two years of screaming, Ford said he finally has Pritzker’s ear, and remains hopeful that his legislation will lead to an immediate change in state law that shoves minority-owned business to the front of the line for new cannabis dispensary licenses.
But make no mistake, the playing field in the Illinois weed business will always be slanted in favor of the white-owned, billion-dollar companies that got licenses first.
“We know minorities will never catch up. It reminds me of Black people in America. There is no catching up. We’ve been held back forever. This cannabis business problem is no different,” Ford said.
“In this case, the situation is so far gone. You can’t use a bank to open a [legal marijuana business], or expand and sustain a business. So if you don’t have cash, you can’t compete. We know we won’t get equity, so we’re fighting for access.”
And that will likely have to come with compromise. As of Thursday, Ford’s bill had been amended to include provisions that would benefit existing legal-weed dealers — clauses that would shorten the amount of time a dispensary owner must live in the disadvantaged neighborhoods where their dispensaries are located and allow existing dispensaries to relocate, for instance.
Ford told me he knows proponents of the bill will likely have to “hold our nose” on such compromises in order to get the 71 votes — and Pritzker’s prompt signature — he needs for the new equity-centric cannabis licensing rules to take effect immediately.
“This has to be done because if we don’t do anything, we will not have a majority black-owned dispensary in Illinois. This industry will continue to be owned by all white males,” he said.
“And that’s a problem.”
For the governor, that is. There’s an election coming. It’s no secret that Pritzker’s approval rating has fallen to around 40 percent. And, as Hendon put it, “I still got my marching shoes.”
“If Pritzker gets this right, it could help his re-election chances tremendously. If it goes bad, 40 percent [approval ratings] will look like the high-water mark. I’m just keeping it real,” Hendon said.
“Our people are pissed right now. We’re living in the time COVID, no-knock warrants, George Floyd. Younger Black people aren’t taking it.”
In 2021, fakequity has become so passé.
Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, wrote and produced the Peabody Award-winning series, “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.” He was a producer, writer and narrator for the “Chicagoland” docu-series on CNN, and a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary, “16 Shots.”
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